BMW M135i and BMW 118d

Moving to the front

There is a new BMW 1 Series in town. A more mainstream, yet more controversial one. I investigate.

While the world attempts a return to some kind of normality, I figured it was time to catch that train and write a regular review about a car in a text that is not dominated by the implications of the Covid-19.

So, lo and behold, the new BMW 1 Series. When BMW decided to search for customers in a market segment below the stablemate 3 Series, back in 2004, it seemed obvious to use everything it could from that model and adapt it into a smaller package.

The first 1 Series was a success, for all the obvious reasons: a lot of people that had wanted a BMW for years finally found something they could afford and fleet buyers also flocked in the thousands for a car which stronger depreciation meant it was a good deal in financial terms.

The greatest thing about the 1 Series is that it was the only car in its segment driven by the rear wheels. Everything from the Volkswagen Golf to the Audi A3, with all those Peugeot, Opel and Renaults in between, was front wheel drive. This meant the driving experience in the BMW was very … well … BMW-ish.

The second 1 Series came along in 2011 and the premise was basically the same. For a better feel through the corners, customers had to compromise on space and practicality – since a rear-wheel-drive car is always less space-efficient than a front-driven one because of the extra gear needed to take power to the back.

Over the years, and although the 1 Series always sold well, it became apparent most buyers had absolutely no idea their car was rear-wheel drive. In fact, almost 80% of owners said they didn’t know or care anything about that and that they just bought the car because it was a BMW and they liked the way it looked.

“Well, maybe,” the guys at Munich thought, “if we make the 1 Series a front-wheel-drive car, it won’t really matter that much to our customers.” As for die-hard fans of driving dynamics, they probably can move up the ladder a little bit and get a 3 Series. It was a calculated risk.

And so, we get to the third and current generation of the baby Beemer. Instead of the 3 Series, the 1 Series of today sits on the same platform as the X1 and the Mini Countryman. Less drifting and more space for the kids and the bags means it’s a more mainstream kind of car, but is that a good or a bad thing?

I drove a 118d, which uses a 1.5 litre diesel engine putting out 150 horsepower via an eight-speed Steptronic gearbox. Nothing too special about this powertrain, but it gets the job done and balances decent performance with very good efficiency numbers.

The big grille is not to my liking, but the rest of the design is quite harmonious, if hardly original. The back is the best part, with a sporty, distinctive look and complex yet interesting light clusters. As all the cars BMW have launched in the last 20 years, the 1 Series is spec-dependent. M-Sport is the best trim option, but also the most expensive, of course.

Inside, there is definitely more space available for all passengers, but the BMW is still not class-leading in this matter. Materials are as good as expected and the infotainment system, to this writer, is still the best in the business to use, if clearly not as snazzy as Mercedes’ M-Bux.

So, what about the elephant in the room? Is this a less accomplished car, dynamics-wise? Well, it certainly isn’t as fun when you push it beyond normal driving conditions. I didn’t like the steering as much either. But – and this is a big but – it is a much more neutral, easy car to drive.

The natural understeer of a front-wheel drive platform is better suited to those less experienced behind the wheel – that’s 90% of buyers – making this a safer car than before, especially in the wet.

These are tough times for the auto industry and emotion must be left at the door at (almost) all times if constructors are to survive and eventually thrive. BMW’s decision makes a lot of sense. Yes, the new 1 Series isn’t as attractive for true petrolheads as before, but it is more appealing to a lot more people and BMW are in the car-selling business, so who can blame them?

Looking at the cars that have spawned from the same platform, the Mini Countryman, BMW X1, X2, Active Tourer and Grand Tourer, it is clear economies of scale are working just as intended. Each of these cars has its own specific selling points, being different enough between them to gather a broad potential customer base.

The 1 Series is for BMW beginners who want a relatively small car with a premium image, decent practicality and ease of use. The 1 Series is all of that. Less fun than before but, ultimately, a better car. Starts at €30,680.

By Guilherme Marques

BMW 118d
BMW M135i and BMW 118d
BMW M135i